The Peaceable Kingdom
The Rev. John Bedingfield
In the name of the God who sent the Messiah to redeem us, Amen.
Have you ever seen the series of paintings done by the late-eighteenth century painter, Edward Hicks? You may not recognize the name, but I bet you’d recognize his work. Hicks created the famous paintings bearing the title, The Peaceable Kingdom. These works have as their basis verses 1-10 from the 11th chapter of the prophet Isaiah that we just heard Mary Jane read.
To see a picture of the painting, go to:
In his paintings, Edward Hicks tried to capture the true flavor of what Isaiah was describing. He has a lion, a leopard, a tiger, a wolf and a bear, interspersed among a cow, a goat, a sheep and several other small animals. All of the animals are wide-eyed as if in wonder that they’re all together. They are gathered along with three small children, one near school-age, the other two apparently helpless toddlers. They all look happy and contented and the children have at least one hand on hitherto dangerous animals. In the background of the painting is something of equal weight and importance. Off in the distance, behind the children and animals, you can see a group of Native Americans and several Anglo “settlers.” They represent William Penn, the founder of Quakerism in America, and his group as they negotiated with the Lenni-LÉnape tribe in the Great Treaty of 1682. All of these people are separated from the children and animals by a wide ravine and there is a forked tree – apparently struck by lightning in the background.
There is great symbolism in Hicks’ work. There is a huge chasm or ravine between where we are – where we live – and the “peaceable kingdom,” about which Isaiah speaks. On one side of the chasm are the warring people of the world, who even if they espouse peaceful beliefs, tend to make and break treaties on whims and who typically exhibit tendencies of little or no justice recognition. That is true of all people – even Hicks’ beloved Quakers. On the other side of the ravine is that place promised to us by God, through Isaiah. In the Kingdom of God, little children are never in any danger. Animals don’t have to fight with each other – or eat each other – in order to survive. Lions and wolves eat hay, just like the cows and sheep. And people are only interested in peace and justice. But that forked tree in the background says something about our natures, too. We have broken away from the beauty, wonder and goodness of God’s creation and branched out on our own.
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The writer of the Book of Isaiah wrote about the peaceable kingdom almost 3,000 years ago. And we’re no closer to making it a reality today than the people of Israel were then. If anything, it has gotten worse. In the days of Isaiah, when people went to war they met each other on a battlefield and fought hand-to-hand for the ground they wanted to occupy. They could look into each other’s eyes and see the cost of their struggles; and decide whether or not the war was worth the cost. Today, although that close-quarter combat has unfortunately not completely gone away, we also have ways of killing each other in astronomical numbers from miles away, literally at the push of a button. It doesn’t take much reading of newspapers or watching TV to determine that peace has not broken out on earth, as of December 9th 2007. There are, in fact, several wars raging around the world today. None of which looks as though it will end soon.
And despite Isaiah’s prophecy of children touching deadly snakes without injury, children on earth certainly do not live in safety today, any more than they did in Isaiah’s time. According to the United Nations, 25,000 people per day – that’s 1 every 3.5 SECONDS – die of hunger related causes, worldwide. And a significant percentage of that number is attributable to children. We haven’t gotten very far toward Isaiah’s vision of children living in safety. Just in Texas a year ago, there were almost 240,000 calls made to Child Protective Services because someone was afraid for the safety of a child. And none of this depressing material begins to touch the issue of the wolf living with lamb or the leopard living with the kid. No. We’re not a bit closer than we were when Isaiah last talked about this subject. I guess all these visions of Isaiah’s were just myths or figments of his imagination.
But let’s look for a minute at what Isaiah said would happen in the world before the peaceable kingdom came.
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.
There are whole schools of Biblical scholarship that hold that Isaiah was talking about the birth of Jesus when he mentioned the shoot from the stump of Jesse. It is no accident that last week’s Gospel reading dealt with the parousia – the second coming of Christ – and this week we read Isaiah’s words. The two things are closely related.
When Jesus was involved in His earthly ministry, he talked often of the Kingdom of God. In this morning’s Gospel reading we hear John the Baptist tell the crowd that they should pay attention and take this chance they have to repent, because the Kingdom of heaven has come near. When Christ Jesus comes again, it will not simply be in the judgment with which so much of Christendom concerns itself. And with all due respect to the “End Times” crowd, I do not believe that worldwide Armageddon is part of God’s ultimate plan for salvation. No. When Christ Jesus returns, it will be in great glory and He will judge – as Isaiah says –with righteousness, and He will “decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” The One who truly has the Spirit of the Lord resting on Him, the One who lives in knowledge and fear of the Lord, the One who IS the shoot from the stump of Jesse, is the One who can and will usher in the peaceable kingdom on earth. And just as I said last Sunday, we shouldn’t stand around waiting for this to happen. Nor should we wring our hands and worry because we’re not ready. Instead, we should use Isaiah’s description as a pattern and get to work, until the wonderful day of the arrival of the peaceable kingdom.
Isaiah says that when the Kingdom of God comes to us, there will be righteousness and fear of the Lord everywhere. It is the Spirit of God and the fear of the Lord that will usher in God’s fulfillment of all creation. We cannot make the peaceable kingdom appear throughout the earth. But I tell you what we CAN do. Each of us can begin to live as if the Spirit of the Lord was truly alive and well within us – because it IS – we say it every time we baptize anyone and we relive it every time we come to the communion rail. We ARE Spirit-filled members of the Body of Christ and we need to start living as if we were. That means living in knowledge and fear of the Lord. It doesn’t mean trembling and cowering at God’s name, it means knowing that God is God and we are NOT. It means knowing the true, active power of God in the world and recognizing it for what it is – not coincidence, not natural occurrence, but the power of God.
If we begin to live out the promises of God in Christ in our everyday lives, we can bring the peaceable kingdom to our churches, our homes and our workplaces. And if that peaceable kingdom is where we live and where we work and where we share communion with each other, then what can come from that?
Have you heard the term, “viral video?” It refers to a video – typically shot by an individual with a hand-held camera. The video is uploaded to a web site like YouTube. Once it’s uploaded, someone sees it and forwards a link to a friend, and tells someone else about it, and they go to the web site and see it, and so on, and so on. Viral videos repeat this process hundreds of thousands of times in a day. There is a video on YouTube of a rabbit attacking a snake and running the snake out of the yard. It’s been viewed almost 3 million times. It’s an interesting video, but 3 million viewers?!? That’s what happens when a video goes viral. It spreads like wildfire.
Well … what if we started living “peaceable kingdom lives,” individually. Lives in which we lived in the knowledge and fear of the Lord – recognizing that we were empowered by the Holy Spirit? And what if we then became living examples of the disciples of Jesus Christ and other people started to notice? What if people asked themselves, “why is that person so at peace in this crazy world?” and the answer was, “she lives in the knowledge and fear of the Lord.” What if our creation of a local peaceable kingdom went viral? Think about it.
Copyright 2009, John Bedingfield. Used by permission.